In our 12-part series, Kate Wadia – Managing Director at Phase 3 Consulting - guides the HR professional through how to navigate, succeed and lead with HR tech project-work. From the inception of the business case to the handover into BAU, we’ll follow an indicative project timeframe to explain the way and the why of a project step-by- step, to give you a full toolkit of practical points, a deciphering of definitions and the top tips to get results important to HR and the wider business.
We pick up the implementation journey after last time’s step-by-step focus on the right process of system selection and at the point where a choice of HR technology has been made. The project is, as yet, not initiated and no-one has signed on the dotted, detailed lines of the contract.
The happy honeymoon of these few weeks you will find little comment on and, unfortunately, this is often reflective of a lack of thought and action. Here I will help you with your homework to be forewarned, forearmed and at-the-ready for a successful “kick-off” and a smooth first phase of the implementation process.
I appreciate that you are waiting at this stage for guidance, information gap-filling and for some introductions too: first up, you may well be waiting for legal departments or supplier representatives to get back to you. This does not mean that you cannot be making progress in some of the heavy-lifting effort. And I recommend that you do.
Get ahead and you’ll save time, start relations well, avoid risky peak periods and make accurate outcomes so very much more likely.
Read on for the help with your homework. But first there remains a contract to sign.
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Negotiating: what to do before you sign on the dotted line
The bad news is that the hard work between selection system and project start (“initiation”) is for you to do. I stress that this includes the agreement on terms and conditions. Engage with someone who is an expert in the niceties of HR systems and technology contracts. Later in this series I will look at some of the types of professional available.
Above all remember that, until you’ve signed on the dotted line, you are still a potential client, a prospect, needing to be won over.
You may believe that there are fairly standard terms of an HR system contract; certainly you are likely to feel as though the terms put in front of you are standard supplier terms and, therefore, that you should accept.
Please be aware that this is far from the case, not least because of the speed at which the HRIS market is changing, meaning that very practical questions such as cost, service styles and IT hosting models are in constant flux.
Combine that pace of industry change with the dynamics of market demand and you’ll see why contract terms are rarely to be exactly compared.
Tip: judge how wise it is to negotiate hard. Consider the other signatory party. What is going to be the impact if you short-change them? Will you feel the offset? This may sound naïve but if the contract conditions are fundamentally fair ones, then more likely all parties can deliver. Negotiating a great “deal” does not necessarily mean driving the hardest bargain, in a context where for an extended period of time there are set to be so many moving parts.
For sizeable technology implementations, you are likely signing up to two contracts, or parts of – one for product licensing, most often now SaaS and one for professional services. Some things about how technology is safely supported are not really up for grabs, but the expertise that you choose to buy in association very much is.
Key question: is a fixed price or time and materials (“T&M”) contract better? There is no one-size-fits-all answer here. Typically any fixed price arrangement work best (all round!) where scope is very closely prescribed and time-frames are short. Fixed price does have the advantage of budget certainty. Milestone payments are a twist on fixed price. But I am not a fan of fixed price models. The service provider needs to buffer your own budget safety with a margin to mitigate their own risk. Whilst you appear to shift the risk on cost, you take the risk on quality. And ever so rarely, as a client, will you not need to change your requirements just a touch! In all cases plan for some contingency budget. 20% is not unreasonable if you are stuck. Some suppliers like to talk to you about contingency funds in an open way, which I welcome.
Which are the grey areas of contracting for an HR technology project?
Here are some of the terms that HR and project managers tend to zoom in on:
- The service level agreement (“SLA”) for fixing faults
- The per-day consultancy cost (treatment of expenses gets unusual attention)
- Terms about early exit and what happens were a supplier to go bust
- Any conditions that appear open-ended, such as the right to respond to legislative update or to charge for client default, or:
- The restrictive flipside clauses that appear to lock you down
- Rates of price increase year-on-year
- Apparent total cost values
I can understand why these are the clauses that get the attention. They are points where the impact is readily implied. They are also emotive. I encourage you to analyse your own thinking on the contract terms.
Instead try considering:
- What has “teeth”. For example, an impressive SLA – simply because breached – does not deliver you the most important remedy, which is the fix!
- What’s the cost. The impact of your negotiation may bite you someplace else. Read the tip below on consultancy costs.
- What will happen in practice. For example, what happens if the supplier fails? If you have serious concern about financial stability (did you do your due diligence?) Link to that point in part 3 then to be looking for an Escrow agreement could be wise. Bear in mind though that a more practical focus is the ease with which you can just grab your data, which might be much more simple.
- What you know about. Distinguish terms you feel to be unimportant because you don’t understand them and those you feel to be unimportant because they are. Be confident on things you understand and delegate to a legal eagle the rest.
- What is missing. Total costs are atypically total! Look laterally at that figure and think what else you might need. Help with data cleanse or migration, for example, is rarely on the list. Is there enough training and support time?
- What is mandatory. Very little by way of consultancy time do you have to take up. Inflexible breakdowns of expertise type can be limiting. By contrast, to deliver SaaS technologies, some aspects of that license agreements do have to be common to all.
Tip: I am wary of encouraging clients I work with to drive down a going consultancy per-day rate too far, if at all. Whilst the cost of hosting software is going down, the market rate for good quality and experience of consultants is not. If you “achieve” a lower price point, can you be confident that you will still get the best team? How much do you know about how you will be resourced? There is no point paying less for something that is either no good, nor not available when you need it.
On contract, have the courage of your convictions. Until your supplier has graciously received your signature, then the control is with you as the client. If you are struggling on confidence, reflect on how the dependencies ahead are going to shift.
Dreary data? One of your most important focuses
One reason why you’ll find few articles on this rather rudderless drift from system selection to kick-off is perhaps that it is regrettably a bit dull. Much of the homework I’m going to suggest here is frankly the heavy-lifting.
But consider this: it has to happen!
If you do not do your part in the implementation work now, then you will have to do it later. To get ahead with your data, your documents and your own “discovery” buys you time (which your project team has more of now than they will later!) and reduce risk on time in tight periods later on. Most importantly, understand that an initial data import is a one-off moment to get accuracy right. Invest in it.
Key question: what does it mean to cleanse your data? Data is rarely in good shape. Cleansing your data - which means preparing it to a state of readiness for the new system – means assessing what state it’s in now. This includes looking at data that is incomplete, formatting of data and how up-to-date data is. With this understanding, and some decisions about which data you actually need, the method of cleanse has no grand secret to it. There is no getting around finding someone to work through files (typically CSV), checking it and changing it. Bear in mind that a part of this is asking all employees or their managers to check records. This is not difficult, but it can prove difficult to do systematically. And it certainly takes a lot of time.
For most in HR, an effective approach to preparing to get started with implementation requires a different way of thinking about information. Your aim is to give those technicians who will be helping you configure the software an absolutely, unarguably precise set of instructions.
You and your team need to set out accurate, complete and structured content for your new technology.
Here is a simple, suggested checklist – at a headline level:
- Employee data: not just personal, but job data - and data about the type of system user they are
- Organisation structure: show this in a form that is more precise than the typical pretty organogram trees. Note the need for reference numbers and talk to Finance about the link to costing. Show who reports to who.
- Process maps: comprehensive diagrams (a tabular format can also work well) about how currently your HR processes flow
Tip: look out early on for the potential “black hat” thinker in your functional teams. It is not uncommon to find that a single individual, resisting the project change, can present a barrier that stalls whole projects. Yes, get them doing, but there is time now to look after them a little too. Try paying a special attention to hearing their resistance and exploring potential benefits to them. So that later you can move swiftly on!
- Terms and conditions: ideally set out in a format more structured than a policy document, making sure to note any exceptions. Whether employment T&Cs attach to people, posts or grades is something to pinpoint.
- IT information: notes from IT about the infrastructure and current specifications associated with any HR, payroll or finance technology in place (line up a contact name and you can also obtain from your supplier the new IT specification)
- Referencing system: you need to work out how each type of data going in is going to be referenced. Every person record needs a unique reference number, as does each part of the organisation structure, each pay and/or costing element etc.
- Report requirements: whilst fine-tuning your Management Information (“MI”) suite is best done during project when you are aware of the fullest potential, it is typically thought about too late. I recommend an early indication of requirement at least.
- Current HR system contract: not of concern to your newly chosen system provider, but don’t archive it just yet. Have to hand terms on exit, including penalties, notice periods and what happens by default at the end of an initial period
- Project planning and method information: in the next article I’ll guide you on some sensible options here
No promises that this list proves to be exhaustive, but I would place bets that it keeps you busy enough.
And therein lies a comforting truth, posed with a question:
Key question: how sure do you need to be? In your preparations, we are pre-initiation and pre-discovery. Discovery is all about information-sharing. But in your self-discovery, as you work through information-gathering above, it is worth considering how sure of what you want you (a) need to be and then (b) are wise to be. For example, an important question you will shortly be asked is how much historical data you wish to bring across to a new system. This is a difficult one, as it feels safest to do lots but the effort and cost impact is enormous. A consultant can help you crystallise your thoughts, with the advantage of much experience and a know-how on quantifying that effort and cost. Where you are not certain and there are options, take your prep only so far. Bring instead a question. You do not need to know all the answers, but be ready to ask the right questions.
Business process review: how to do it properly
Business process is translated within the HR tech into workflows and authorisation processes.
Do not assume that your current process is the one that must be re-built. Do map those current processes. Don’t miss a trick to use the opportunity to review those with a new system.
Choose to do this amongst yourselves or to engage an external expert depending on your skillsets, the degree of difference you expect in the technology capability, as well as any internal team changes you wish to achieve and of course the cost.
Tip: a great start-point for a facilitated and objective business process review is if you can describe – against a diagram of how things work currently:“The purpose of this process/step is to….. / The most difficult things for us prove to be that / And what matters the most is that X, Y and Z happen along the way/as an end result.” This gives an expert the right clues about how to solve pain-points without delivering you solutions that may make the best of the technology but miss a crucial outcome. And for you the open-minded nature of the process presentation allows you the best chance of hearing about the possibilities you may not be aware of.
Step 4 in short!
If I cast a grey cloud over the happy honeymoon that I’ve observed between “phew, we’ve got it” and the day a project begins then I do so with no apology.
Formal project theory will tell you that, by their nature, projects have a start and end point. But I think your experience of the implementation journey may not feel quite like that. Your internal change mission began long ago and you are well advised to take active charge of the weeks between system selection and the kick-off meeting.
- Negotiating precision of contract is a point where you have a firm balance of power; and a balance about to be destabilised, so use it now!
- Data is the heavy-lifting; get set to take maximum advantage of a moment coming soon where you can import automatically but accurately.
Just because the interval here lacks the glamour of the “beauty parades” and system selection, nor the apparent wins of steps to come, does not excuse a top-performing organisation keeping on-the-go. The homework is hard-going, but practical doing work of data, documents and internal discovery are not difficult. You will reap your reward.
Start on project planning too and we’ll look at that next time.
Take 1 Step on Step 4! Make a file. Everyone can do this. Ideally make it an electronic one and ideally use the structured formats suggested, completing file templates provided. But if you do just one thing, then it is please to arrive at project kick-off with as much detailed information as you can gathered into one place.
About Kate Wadia
Kate’s passion at work is for bridging the gap between technology and people at work, translating for HR professionals the language of HR systems and making meaningful their potential.
She believes that success with people technology is through people and that people are the differentiator. Using simple techniques drawn from HR experience, project management, business psychology and analogy with everyday life, Kate presents and explains how to work well with technology and technology projects in an HR leadership role.
With a background in contrasting private and public sector HR management, Kate developed her thinking in seeking for herself to understand her first HR systems project-work.
Currently she leads the Service Delivery for Phase 3 Consulting, offering an independent take on the HR systems market in the UK, through a network of experts. Kate’s guiding principle is that openness offers knowledge-sharing, credibility and trust.
Incorrigibly enthusiastic and up absurdly early for a working morning, she swears that she only drinks three good coffees a day, but nobody believes her!